Alberta equalization referendum will have no bearing on Constitution, experts say


Premier Jason Kenney said he will put a referendum question on equalization before the Alberta legislature on Monday, with an eye toward a province-wide vote to coincide with the October municipal elections.

Premier Jason Kenney and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu announced Monday that the Alberta government will move toward a provincial referendum on equalization.(Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Premier Jason Kenney said he will put a referendum question on equalization before the Alberta legislature on Monday, with an eye toward a provincewide vote to coincide with the October municipal elections.

If Kenney's motion gets the OK from a majority of MLAs, Albertans will be asked on Oct. 18: Should the section of the Constitution that commits the Government of Canada to the principle of making equalization payments be removed?

The move to hold a referendum makes good on Kenney's promise dating back to the 2019 provincial election. He has railed against the equalization payments, arguing that provinces, specifically Quebec, are benefiting from the economic boon of oil development while trying to block it.

"For millions of Albertans, equalization has become the most powerful symbol of the unfairness for Alberta's deal in confederation and for good reason," he said during a news conference Monday.

The result of the yes-or-no vote would have no immediate bearing on the program since scrapping equalization would require a constitutional amendment, with two-thirds of the provinces in support.

"This is a strategy to elevate Alberta's fight for fairness in the federation to the top of the national agenda. To get Ottawa's attention," he said. "This is a legal tool to make a very strong political point, in the strongest way possible.

The federal transfer program sends unconditional payments to lower-income provinces in a bid to address fiscal disparities across the provinces and provide for comparable public services in Canada.

Provinces with weaker economies receive transfer payments, while those with stronger economies, such as Alberta, do not. The money comes from general federal revenue, like income and corporate taxes, the GST and tariffs on imports that all Canadians pay into.

Kenney was a federal cabinet minister when Stephen Harper's Conservative government last adjusted the equalization formula.

The promise to hold a referendum was popular during the 2019 provincial election, with 57 per cent in support, according to data provided by Vote Compass.

It was also one of several recommendations put forward by Alberta's Fair Deal Panel, struck by Kenney in November 2019.

The proposal has received pushback from, among others, municipal politicians who warn the referendum could overshadow this fall's local elections. The province has said aligning the two would increase voter turnout and save money.

The government introduced legislation in April that would permit cabinet ministers to speak publicly about issues to be voted on in referendums.

Alberta has posed seven questions to voters since 1915 in the form of referendums or non-binding plebiscites. The most recent was held in August 1971 and asked Albertans if they favoured daylight saving time.

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